Views Diverge on How To Recast Fannie, Freddie

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac's "public-private entanglement" will likely be undone. (By Susan Walsh -- Associated Press)
By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 22, 2008

Policymakers are looking to revamp the nation's home loan system next year after the collapse of U.S. housing and mortgage markets spurred the current economic crisis.

Under one possible approach, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the federally run companies that control half of the nation's $11 trillion mortgage market, would disappear, leaving lending primarily to private banks. Taxpayers would no longer be on the line for subsidizing home loans. But analysts say it could become much harder to get a mortgage -- at least one with a relatively low interest rate and a 30-year term.

Under another approach, Fannie and Freddie would remain. They could continue as private companies, trying to strike the difficult balance between the demands of profit-seeking shareholders and those of policy-oriented lawmakers. They could also be turned into government agencies. In either of these cases, taxpayers would remain potentially exposed to trillions of dollars in losses.

The debate comes after the nation endured a bruising effort to promote homeownership in the past decade. Fannie and Freddie provided hundreds of billions of dollars in loans to people with blemished credit records or other financial limitations, which led to huge losses and the government seizing the firms in September as the financial crisis escalated. The government agreed to cover as much as $200 billion in losses.

Now policymakers are looking at ways to prevent a relapse while maintaining Fannie and Freddie's charge of supplying consistent funding for mortgages. Fannie, Freddie and government agencies are funding nearly all of the nation's home loans; private lenders have all but disappeared.

"If we want to divorce the federal government from the risks of the housing system, you would privatize it," said Howard Glaser, a housing consultant who has worked for Fannie and Freddie. "The cost of that is you never know if you'll have mortgage finance available. Case in point: today."

Fannie and Freddie were chartered by Congress 40 years ago as private companies with a government mandate to buy mortgages from lenders, package them, guarantee them against default and sell them to investors around the world. As a result, borrowers in big cities or small towns could go to big banks or small thrifts and get a 30-year, fixed-rate loan at an affordable rate.

But risks always loomed. Investors assumed that the government backed Fannie and Freddie, even if they did not have such support officially. As a result, the companies could borrow cheaply and grow big -- with as much outstanding debt as the U.S. government. But the housing crisis crippled the companies, prompting the Bush administration to take them over out of concern they'd severely damage the world financial system.

Some longtime supporters of Fannie and Freddie say they must change, but still see a need for the government to play a role. "The Fannie and Freddie model has to be approached and the private-public entanglement, I think, will be undone," Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said in a recent interview. Frank said the reform of Fannie and Freddie is likely to include "some subsidy for enhanced affordability and increasing the flow of mortgages."

But there is little agreement about precisely how to restructure them. While Frank no longer thinks the hybrid model is viable, another influential lawmaker does. "The hybrid is the best," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who leads the Joint Economic Committee. "The hybrid nature should remain."

President-elect Barack Obama has said little on the topic. Obama's chief economic adviser, former Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers, has long been a critic of the risks posed by Fannie and Freddie. In a Washington Post opinion piece this past summer, Summers wrote that the government should use Fannie and Freddie to support the housing market during the crisis and that the government should then "divide their functions into government and private components, the latter of which would be sold off in multiple pieces."

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